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Director: Roger Corman
Starring: Vincent Price, Debra Paget, Lon Chaney Jr.
The Haunted Palace would be the sixth film in Roger Corman and Vincent Price’s ‘Poe Cycle’, but it would also have only the slightest of actual connections with Edgar Allan Poe.
Save for the title and a some clumsily inserted lines from the original poem, there would be no inspiration taken from the classic Boston author. Instead, this entry in the series would be influenced by another of New England’s seminal masters of horror- H.P. Lovecraft.
A better, if less lurid, title would have been The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward, what with that being the 1927 HPL novella that was adapted for the screen. It would have been too, if Corman (a huge fan of Lovecraft himself) had his way, but AIP executives overruled him and insisted on connecting the film with the five films that had already turned a profit previously.
It’s a shame, as The Haunted Palace would be the first Lovecraft story ever brought to film and while it is not slavishly faithful to the original text, it retains enough to be considered an adaptation and not just be ‘inspired by’ his work as so many lesser films purport to be.
It would also see the first ever mention of cosmic entities Cthulhu and Yog Sothoth on celluloid, as well as a debut cinematic appearance by Lovecraft’s infamous grimoire, the dread Necronomicon in all its glory.
Often regarded as a minor entry in the Corman/Price ‘Poe Cycle’, the 1963 entry is an underrated mini-masterpiece that deserves a bigger reputation. Taking some of H.P. Lovecraft’s most disturbing concepts almost verbatim and turning them into a commercial film with wide-ranging appeal is no easy task, but Corman pulls off the trick magnificently.
Of course, he is helped massively in that endeavour by what can only be described as a tour-de-force performance from his leading man, the great Vincent Price. Playing the dual role of Charles Dexter Ward and his evil ancestor Joseph Curwen, Price gives an impeccable display of his talents, equally convincing as a charming hero as he is the blackest of villains.
Arkham, Massachusetts; 1765. When the local villagers storm the ‘palace’ of the wealthy Joseph Curwen (Price) in search of a missing girl, they find a house of horror. Curwen is a warlock and has been conducting arcane rituals where young women after offered up to nameless, hideous creatures for procreation, leaving them mentally broken and carrying mutated, semi-human offspring.
Curwen is dragged out by the mob to be burned alive, but his accomplice and mistress Hester is spared by their leader, Ezra Weeden who was engaged to be married to the woman before she fell under Curwen’s spell. The necromancer is incinerated, but not before he curses the town of Arkham, its people and their progeny, promising that he will return from the grave to wreak his revenge.
110 years later in 1875, Curwen’s own descendent Charles Dexter Ward (Price again) and his wife Anne (Paget) arrive in the town with the intention of moving into the uninhabited palace, much to the consternation of the villagers of Arkham. They receive a hostile welcome, which leads them to make plans to leave again at the earliest opportunity.
Ward immediately feels familiarity with the old place though and both he and his wife are shocked at his resemblance to Curwen in an old painting, which he becomes gradually more drawn to. Simon (Chaney), the palace’s caretaker encourages them to at least stay the night, which is all that is needed for the malevolent spectre of Joseph Curwen to begin getting his claws into the naive Charles.
Slowly, the warlock begins to take over his ancestor’s body, his personality being replaced by until eventually it will be gone forever. Worse, Curwen wastes no time resuming his work from before – reanimating the dead and offering up young women to the Elder Gods and Ward’s wife Anne is to be the first victim…
While never intending it to be part of his Poe series with Price, The Haunted Palace is a prefect fit with what had come before and what would follow it.
It’s a sumptuously realised gothic horror, visually stunning at times despite its modest budget, bringing to life a nightmarish world where nowhere feels safe or welcoming and the threat of timeless, eldritch horror is ever-present.
It’s there in the sprawling palace sets, which feel huge and overpowering, particularly in the cavernous basement where Curwen’s cult communes with the Great Old Ones.
It’s there in the graveyard and the fog-draped grounds and it’s there in the town of Arkham itself, normally the safe haven in tales such as these, but here feels tainted by association. The locals are cruel and malicious, which is understandable, all things considered. Curwen’s curse has indeed had long-teaching effects on the place, not least on the amount of deformities plaguing the populace. The palace isn’t somewhere you’d want to linger in, but neither is Arkham itself.
The set design on a whole is a huge factor in how atmospheric the film is, which is all the more remarkable considering the pittance Corman had to work with.
The other main factor is the source material. It’s impossible to understate the importance of H.P. Lovecraft to the horror genre as a whole, but films that successfully adapt his material are sadly thin on the ground. Corman and scriptwriter Charles Beaumont nail it here, though.
Obviously The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward is one of the easier tales to adapt, but it’s handled perfectly, diverting from the original text but not so much as to lose the point of it. Curwen’s sorcery is part of a much bigger thing. He and his cultists aren’t just worshipping some mysterious dark powers, they’re obeying their commands, even if they don’t know why.
The whole idea of young women being impregnated by inhuman entities is the stuff of nightmares and comes from one of Lovecraft’s finer moments, The Dunwich Horror. Here, we see the unfortunate women chained and spreadeagled over a pit where some lurking terror awaits. That’s grim enough, but it’s with that revelation that you reassure why the girl in the prologue scene seemed in a trance and had no memory. She wasn’t in any kind of trance, she (and many others) had been raped by something…inhuman. Nightmare fodder indeed.
The idea of miscegenation is supremely Lovecraftian too, with the degenerate mutants wandering the streets of Arkham, the product of those unholy unions. The majority are eyeless, silent things and despite seemingly being part of the local township are far from normal. Their slow encroachment on Ward and his wife when they arrive in town is chilling to watch, as they gradually surround the pair, only to drift off when the sounds of the church bell ring out. Their motivation is left mysterious, but the one acknowledgement of any presence of God in the town certainly suggests the essence of evil runs in their blood.
Worse still is the monstrous thing that Ezra Weeden’s descendant Edgar has locked away in his attic. Clearly his son, but much, much worse than the others, it’s him that shows the true power of Curwen’s curse. His goal of mating human women with Elder Gods is one thing, but we can see that even the regular townsfolk’s children are tainted by sheer proximity.
In the dual role of Curwen and Charles Dexter Ward, Vincent Price is given free range to show what a truly great actor he was. The latter part is slightly undercooked to be fair, but the actor’s natural charm and charisma more than makes up for the lack of material to work with. There’s enough there to establish him as a loving husband though, making his transformation into the evil Curwen all the more impactful.
Naturally it’s when Price can cut loose as the villain he really shines, though. In his skilful hands, Joseph Curwen is a true monster. Sadistic, cruel and malevolent, the warlock is a true holy terror. He has grand plans and is driven to fulfil them, but takes the time for petty revenge and slowly torturing the poor wife of his descendent who at first is oblivious to the danger she is in. The scene where he attempts to rape her purely for sport is as upsetting and disturbing as any of the more overt horror that we are exposed to and Price sells it perfectly.
The supporting cast more than holds its own against such a bravura performance too. As the unfortunate Anne Ward, Debra Paget in her last film role subtly mixed vulnerability with inner strength and really has you caring what happens to her, while Lon Chaney Jr’s small role as Curwen’s cultist and caretaker makes full use of his physical presence.
Corman uses it to great effect with some jarring close-ups to emphasise his intensity and while he doesn’t have a huge amount to do, Chaney, like Price, makes the most of it. The only downside is the role was originally marked for Boris Karloff and with no disrespect to the other man, we can only imagine how much more he would have brought to the part.
The Haunted Palace is an oddity in the Corman/Price Poe Cycle by dint of its source material, but it not only stands as one of the strongest entries in the series, but gives Vincent Price one of his many standout roles. Not only that, but it is easily up there with the finest representations of the work of H.P. Lovecraft ever committed to celluloid.
A classic in other words, and an essential part of the filmography of both Roger Corman and Vincent Price.
This review originally appeared in Into the Velvet Darkness – A Celebration of Vincent Price.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy